Saudi Arabia has purchased a pair of SpaceX astronaut seats from Axiom

CNN business

Saudi Arabia plans to launch two astronauts to the International Space Station in a space capsule from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, becoming the latest Gulf nation to tighten ties with private US space companies, according to three people familiar with the deal.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the mission’s crew ahead of the formal announcement, said the deal was signed privately earlier this year with Houston-based Axiom Space, which organizes and manages private US space missions for researchers and tourists.

Under the deal, two Saudi astronauts will ride aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to the space station for a roughly one-week stay early next year, the sources said. The Saudis would be the first of their country to go into space in a private spacecraft.

Axiom had no immediate comment. Officials at the Saudi Space Commission, Riyadh’s space agency founded in 2018, were not immediately available for comment.

Private US companies have played an increasingly key role in sending astronauts to the space station as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the US space agency now focused on returning humans to the moon, seeks to commercialize the decades-old US human spaceflight. presence in low earth orbit.

The deal would mark the latest to put companies like Axiom in a special diplomacy role long dominated by government agencies like NASA. The space station is a football field-sized laboratory about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth that has hosted international astronaut crews for more than 20 years.

The Saudi astronauts will join two previously announced Americans, retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and race car driver and investor John Shoffner, the sources said. The mission called Ax-2 will be the second space flight organized by Axiom.

The private astronauts aboard Ax-2 have yet to be approved by stakeholders and countries involved in the NASA-led space station, such as Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency, a US official said. The official added that it is likely that the mission will receive approval.

For Axiom and other space companies, cutting deals with foreign governments is essential to sustaining a business focused on putting people in space. Putting people into space is a luxury for wealthy adventure seekers and a source of national fame and inspiration for aspiring space powers like Saudi Arabia.

Axiom launched its first private mission to the space station in April, sending a crew of four to the space station in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that included a Canadian investor and an Israeli businessman.

And Axiom on Monday announced a deal with Turkey to launch the country’s first two astronauts into space by the end of 2023. That will likely be for the Ax-3 mission, according to a person familiar with the flight.

Axiom’s astronaut flight business is essential experience for the company’s broader goals of expanding its private space station by mid-decade. It plans to first attach the modules to the ISS, before splitting them into a fully private structure after the existing international laboratory retires around 2030.

The value of Axiom’s Saudi deal was unclear. Each Crew Dragon seat on Axiom’s first mission sold for $55 million.